Why Six-Word Novels are Bullshit

I met my friend Erin over an argument. She didn't like something or other that I wrote in Boise Weekly, and decided to shout at me about it in a punk club. That turned into a wild disagreement on literature that has made us friends ever since.

Erin, a book store clerk and published book reviewer, also likes to write flash fiction (stories generally less than 100 words), something I largely detest. Not because of its its brevity, but because I dislike trying to make things be things they aren't instead of letting them be the best whatever they already are that they can be, and that once you begin with the premise of writing flash fiction, you're already creating a box—extremely short form—that the story you are writing may not fit into. Stories should be as long or as short as they need to be, no more, no less.

Obviously, Erin disagreed, and brought up the so-called six-word novel, something that was big on Twitter for a while with the hashtag #SixWordNovels, but that was around before Twitter as well. Erin cited a story by Hemingway as an example of how six words was all it took to tell a rich and engaging story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

I'll admit, Hemingway has never really been my thing. But the belief that those six words somehow constitute a complete story is patently absurd. We went 12 rounds over it, convincing everyone in the bar we were about to come to blows, when in fact we were having a great time.

Erin's argument was that from those six words, a reader is given a sense of plot, background, and an emotional weight that conveys the story's gravitas. I completely disagree because from my perspective the plot is wildly ambiguous, and the background and weight that would be delivered hinge on those plot points.

How so?

Why weren't the baby shoes ever worn? I'm serious. Why? If you know about Hemingway's life, or have read his work, then you fill in the blanks with the events in A Farewell to Arms (his wife and child die). But, one: that's a helluva lot more than six words, and two: not everyone has read it, and three: that's a subjective inference.

Everything that supposedly makes this story great comes from the idea that it is a tasteful take on tragedy, a concise slice of life that showcases the fine line where tragedy bumps into the day-to-day life we still have to live while enduring it. His baby is dead, and now he has to deal with the physical objects around him that stir him up through emotional association. It's heavy.

But what if the shoes weren't worn because they didn't fit the baby they were bought for, who is alive and plump without a care in the world? What if someone bought the shoes as a gag present for a person with extremely large feet? What if they were given as a gift at a baby shower and the expectant mother got two of the same pair from two different attendees? What if a junkie told her parents she was pregnant so they would give her money to spend on heroin and they instead bought her baby stuff which she was then trying to sell? What if a wholly different tragedy struck and the baby was born with deformed feet that don't fit in shoes? Etc.

The point is that those are all very different stories, and if you reach the end of the six words and you can't say for certain what happened, then no, it isn't a complete story. I accept some ambiguity of character as acceptable at the end of a story, but not ambiguity of plot. And moreover, if the events of the story are totally different than those the reader believes to have transpired, then the intended emotional connection is false as well. I don't think you can even say for certain that the story is a tragedy, and not a comedy. I'm not saying that a complete story can't be told in six words, just that I find it highly unlikely it will be truly complete or satisfying for the reader.

Some would say that art is subjective, and that you take from the story what you will. But with storytelling, the area that is open to interpretation is more about how to feel about the story, not about what it is that the story is actually about.

For example: let's assume that it's a story about Hemingway's baby dying and not any of the other potential scenarios. If so, at the end, one could feel sad, they could feel that he dodged a bullet because having kids is a burden, they could feel that capitalism is a beautiful system that allows for the best possible distribution of required goods even in the face of tragedy, or many other things. That's the subjective interpretation of art that works for this medium. But those emotional responses are still based on the perceived fact and/or events of the story, and if in fact those fact or events are different, then it's all screwy. It's like a server in a restaurant writing down on a ticket that you want a club sandwich and the cook deciding that means you really wanted a batter-fried human thumb. That level of subjectivity doesn't apply to written communication because there is an intended message. If the medium is too short to convey that message, then it doesn't work. And if it is short enough to convey that message, then that brings up a whole other issue.

Social media has driven the idea that brevity is somehow a paramount value. But there is a strong tendency for people to mistake shallow thinking for concise writing. If a story only takes six words, fine, but it probably isn't a very interesting story. Incredibly complex issues don't always fit into 140 characters, and trying to force them into that box does a disservice to your subject and to your readers. And with both flash fiction and social media, it's the box that comes first, not what fits into it.

Of course, Erin disagreed to the bitter end (last call), a truly wonderful character trait, and continued to work on her yet-to-be-published collection of flash fiction, a book I sincerely look forward to reading one day.

You can read more of Erin's “wrong” opinions on her blog, or in her work for The Blue Review.